Edinburgh pandas: Berlin panda used for insemination

Experts artificially inseminated Tian Tian after natural breeding efforts proved unsuccessful. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Experts artificially inseminated Tian Tian after natural breeding efforts proved unsuccessful. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IT was supposed to be the start of a beautiful romance – but now it seems to have turned into a bizarre love triangle.

While Edinburgh Zoo bosses hope female giant panda Tian Tian is pregnant after undergoing artificial insemination, the identity of the potential father is in doubt.

Experts were forced to boost a lowly reserve of Yang Guang’s frozen semen by adding a batch collected from a panda who died in Berlin last year at the age of 34.

Bao Bao was given to West Germany by China in 1980 as part of a series known as “panda diplomacy”. He failed to mate, despite attempts in Berlin and in London, where he was loaned in the early 1990s.

Zoo bosses said the latest chapter in the courtship drama of the giant pandas began when it became clear that Tian Tian had ovulated on Saturday.

Her 36-hour breeding window meant she wanted to mate, but keepers said her behaviour suggested she would not be responsive to Yang Guang.

Putting them together created a serious risk of injury and it was decided artificial insemination was the safest method.

As there was not enough frozen semen belonging to Yang Guang, zoo chiefs said a sample taken from Bao Bao was added, boosting the chances of success by aping a panda’s natural tendency to mate with as many partners as possible during the short breeding window.

The procedure was carried out on Tian Tian after advice from panda experts in Germany and China.

Iain Valentine, director of Edinburgh Zoo’s giant pandas project, said: “We were honoured to have gathered so many of the world leading experts on artificial insemination and reproduction management.

“This was ground-breaking science taking place for the first time in the UK.”

“It would have been amazing if the pandas had mated naturally, however artificial insemination is the next best thing for the overall global conservation effort and the individual biology of Tian Tian. With every year that goes by where she does not become pregnant, it becomes harder for her to get pregnant naturally.

“Like IVF, artificial insemination is essentially an opportunity for science to give nature a helping hand.

“In the wild, female pandas will mate with several males within her 36-hour breeding window, giving her the best chance of successful conception. In the zoo, this is not possible.”

It will not be known if Tian Tian is pregnant until mid-July, with any cubs born around six weeks later.